The gesture

Pure love

Pure love. SurFerGiRL30CC-BY

Sunday morning at church. I took a seat by the aisle where sunlight poured through the stained glass window, where pale patches of pink, green, blue, and gold glimmered down the white wall.

In front of me sat a young man, a young woman, and a little girl, three years old.

The young man stretched his arm along the back of the pew, nearly but not quite embracing the young woman and child, just an easy drape of affection, of togetherness.

I could just see the top of the child’s head, two pinned-up pigtails coming loose, where his hand rested.

Then a chubby little hand crept up to pat his arm, once, twice, with all the grace of a ballerina. Two slow, deliberate, barely-discernible pats, before the dimpled hand disappeared again.

I watched, pierced by this silent message.

Maybe it was I love you. Or Thank you for being with me. Or quiet reassurance—I am fine, you are fine, we are fine together. Maybe even I’m here, you’re here, all is well with the world.

Such pureness of heart in that simple gesture. Such trust and confidence, such peace. How naturally it comes to a child, reaching out to someone else in benevolence, faith, and belonging.

And I mourned the incremental loss of it as we grow older, that it should fade like the colored patches of stained-glass light against the wall, that clarity of purpose should be obscured even as we accrue the words and language to better communicate our thoughts and feelings, that we should have to think twice about reaching out, or being the first to do so.

Two gentle pats, in them contained the original order and design of things, that together is the best place to be, that we are here for one another.

And so the children remind us.

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

September 11

Healing field

The Healing Field. Randy HeinitzCC BY

Out of the blue

a student asks:

“Mrs. Haley,

if you could have

one magic power,

what would it be?”

Other students 

look up from their writing

to listen. 

I think of suffering

of strife

of festering

scars and stripes

visible

and invisible.

Broken bodies

hearts

psyches.

The children watch

and wait.

What power would it be?

“Healing,” I say.

They absorb this

without a word

their young eyes

looking far away

or maybe far within

to make

their own meaning.

They nod

as they return

to creating

their own stories.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Free

Helen and Annie

Helen Keller taking a speech lesson from Annie Sullivan. 1890s. City of Boston ArchivesCC-BY

Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.

—Anne Sullivan

Today I am thinking of the twelve Thai boys trapped in the flooded cave with their soccer coach for over two weeks. They’re almost all rescued now; the world holds its collective breath for the news that the final boy is free, as well as the coach, to be saved last.

They wrote letters, the boys. To their parents, telling them not to worry, that they love them.

Parents wrote letters to the boys . . . telling them not to worry, that they love them.

The letters are now a celebration of life. Of freedom. Of overcoming those long, unimaginable days in the depths of the cave, at the mercy of an unpredictable sea, of hunger, of separation, of darkness.

Words of hope . . . for, as Alexander Pope wrote long ago: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Words of survival. I think of Anne Sullivan’s words on “the cry of the human spirit to be free” and how, as a teacher, despite the magnitude of the task, that it was uncharted territory, she reached into the depths of Helen Keller’s dark, silent, anguished world to give her a voice, to set her free.

Helen’s own words: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

A freelance writer recently told me: “I teach writing to prisoners in North Carolina. It’s a powerful thing to see, someone with no voice suddenly having a voice. Despite all the restrictions, if you can write, you are free.”

The cry of the human spirit.

That is, above all, why we write.

For ourselves, for one another, for freedom, for hope.

For life.

Be

img_5026-2

Long may our land be bright . . . 

Be

I find a place where I can be

away from clamor

away from contention

away from conflagration.

A place where I can see

sunlight on the grass

on the trees

on the rocks

on the water

flowing on and on.

A place that invites me

to see the good

in myself,

in others,

to be the good

for myself

for others.

A place of recess

of stillness

of silence

where I sigh less.

Here,

for this moment,

I can

breathe

believe

and be.

Perhaps this is a strange Fourth of July post. It came together strangely.

It was inspired in part by two quotes from children’s television icon Fred Rogers in the documentary of his life and work, Won’t You Be My Neighbor:

  • Whatever happened to GOODNESS? To just being GOOD?” Mr. Rogers, a man of faith who spent five decades helping others and building them up, asked this in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. He would live just seventeen more months.
  • Silence is our most underused gift.” In many segments of his program, Mr. Rogers was silent so that children could concentrate on what they were seeing. 

I thought about children. About seeing our country, our world, through their eyes. 

I remembered the photo of my first son contemplating the autumn countryside from the doorway of an old grist mill when he was just three. He grew up to be an American history teacher.

A sprinkling of our patriotic songs and lyrics returned to me, like sea spray on the breeze. America the beautiful. Land that I love. Land of the noble free. Crown thy good with brotherhood. Home of the brave. Home sweet home. 

All stirring me to ruminate on beliefs and believing, on building up versus tearing down, on how, if all voices are shouting, no one’s being heard.

The word clamor came to mind and it somehow strung everything together—whatever happened to goodness and silence is our most underused gift and children and faith and long may our land be bright—like beads on a string.

So today, for a moment, I find a place away from the clamor. In the dawn’s early light and within myself.

To reflect.

To be.

And believe.

Still.

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.

Tell me something good

Don't believe everything

Image: John D. Fisher, street photographer. CC BY-SA

When I found this photo of a man reading the newspaper, I noted that his pet pelican has grabbed a corner. I imagined the bird saying to the man, somewhat dryly as it peers at the page, Tell me something good.

It just so happens that a teacher colleague recently wore a shirt to school bearing these same words. Tell me something good.

“Well,” I said to her, “This is something good: Summer’s almost here.”

She laughed. At the time she was was returning her end-of-grade testing materials. “I hope people tell me something good all day.”

I began to think about how different a day could be if people continually heard something good from others.

Vacation’s almost here.

The test is over.

I enjoy working with my colleagues.

I admire your work.

I found twenty dollars in the pocket of a coat I was about to throw out!

Systems and society can make us pretty acclimated to the negative. Deficits, grievances, outrageous behavior, all that’s broken, all that’s not working. Things that beat down rather than build up.

But good stuff’s always happening out there.

All the time, everywhere.

A stranger stopped to change my tire this morning. He was tired, on his way home from working the night shift, but he said that being able to help someone is a blessing. 

I got a well-written thank you note from a young person.

Another Triple Crown winner!

It’s all about hope, really. A reminder that there’s much to keep striving for in the hard grind of life. And that it’s worth it.

Tell me something good.

Please.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.